First stop was a trip over the border to Ronchamp, Le Corbusier’s curvy chapel in the French countryside. This was a building we thought we knew inside out but in person it reveals enough to constantly surprise. One of the masters at his most inventive plus cheese and wine in the sunshine - a strong start to the weekend.
The following day brought the trip’s special feature - a group tour of the secretive Novartis Campus, a super-secure gated community of research and development facilities for one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies. What lies within is a menagerie of buildings by a who’s who of modern architectural stars - Sanaa, Siza, Chipperfield, Moneo, Gehry, Ando, Markli and more, the list is endless. It’s a private architectural zoo and the result is surprisingly coherent. Most have conformed to a collective style of extreme refinement, polite and respectful with flashes of brilliance. The first two buildings in particular - by Peter Markli and Sanaa - provoked extreme reactions and collective jaws dropped. For some, the moment outside surrounded by swirling apple blossom was a near celestial experience, but there was dissent too. The opulence of the Markli building was vulgar, the extreme transparency of the Sanaa was impractical. The campus has a fascist order which was not helped by the stark weekend emptiness. It would make a great set for a dystopian sci-fi – only genetically modified perfection permitted here. Perhaps in this context Frank Gehry’s universally unpopular wacky shapes were refreshingly gauche, the only rebellion against conformity. Perhaps our imaginations were out of control, it was that sort of place.
The rest of the weekend was filled with more, much much more – the city is full to bursting with great modern buildings. What struck most of all was the variety and invention. These are not only the Swiss stereotype of serious, refined boxes - there’s a little fun in there too, from the colourful tiles of the old churches to the playfully stacked house-forms of Herzog and de Meuron’s VitraHaus. The combined quality is testament to a city which has the cash and ambition to invest in its buildings – it’s an inspiring place to visit.